Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Robert Johnson - King of the Delta Blues Singers

This is my post from this week's Tuesday Blog.

As I teased in my earlier post of Tudor-era lute music by the 17th century composer of the same name, today’s Vinyl’s revenge looks at another troubadour guitarist (if you allow me to equate lute and guitar…) also named Robert Johnson.

Robert Leroy Johnson (1911 –1938) was an American blues singer-songwriter and musician who has the unique distinction of being ranked fifth in Rolling Stone magazine's "100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time". As an itinerant performer who played mostly on street corners, in juke joints, and at Saturday night dances, Johnson had little commercial success or public recognition in his lifetime. Johnson's shadowy and poorly documented life and death at age 27 have given rise to much legend. He is credited by many rock musicians as an important influence; the blues and rock musician Eric Clapton has called Johnson "the most important blues singer that ever lived."

Johnson is considered a master of the blues, particularly of the Delta blues style. Keith Richards, of the Rolling Stones, said in 1990, "You want to know how good the blues can get? Well, this is it." But according to Elijah Wald, in his book Escaping the Delta, Johnson in his own time was most respected for his ability to play in a wide range of styles, from raw country slide guitar to jazz and pop licks, and for his ability to pick up guitar parts almost instantly upon hearing a song. Johnson’s playing was complex and musically advanced. When Keith Richards was first introduced to Johnson's music by his bandmate Brian Jones, he asked, "Who is the other guy playing with him?", not realizing it was Johnson playing one guitar. "I was hearing two guitars, and it took a long time to actually realise he was doing it all by himself," said Richards, who later stated that "Robert Johnson was like an orchestra all by himself. […] As for his guitar technique, it's politely reedy but ambitiously eclectic—moving effortlessly from hen-picking and bottleneck slides to a full deck of chucka-chucka rhythm figures."

The Robert Johnson legend rests predominantly on a pair of recording sessions. The first session was held on November 23, 1936, in room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, which Brunswick Records had set up to be a temporary recording studio. In the ensuing three-day session, Johnson reportedly performed facing the wall, which has been cited as evidence he was a shy man and reserved performer. The slide guitarist Ry Cooder speculates that Johnson played facing a corner to enhance the sound of the guitar, a technique he calls "corner loading".

His first recorded song, "Kind Hearted Woman Blues," in contrast to the prevailing Delta style of the time, more resembled the style of Chicago or St. Louis, with "a full-fledged, abundantly varied musical arrangement." Unusual for a Delta player of the time, a recording exhibits what Johnson could do entirely outside of a blues style. "They're Red Hot", from his first recording session, shows that he was also comfortable with an "uptown" swing or ragtime sound similar to that of the Harlem Hamfats, but as Wald remarked, "no record company was heading to Mississippi in search of a down-home Ink Spots ... [H]e could undoubtedly have come up with a lot more songs in this style if the producers had wanted them."

In 1937, Johnson traveled to Dallas, Texas, for another recording session in a makeshift studio at 508 Park Avenue. Eleven records from this session would be released within the following year. Johnson did two takes of most of these songs, and recordings of those takes survived. Because of this, there is more opportunity to compare different performances of a single song by Johnson than for any other blues performer of his time and place. Johnson recorded almost half of the 29 songs that make up his entire discography in Dallas.

Today’s share, the 1961 album King of the Delta Blues Singers, compiles sixteen mono recordings, thirteen of which were previously available as 78s on the Vocalion label, originally recorded during the two Brunswick sessions of 1936 and 1937. By the time this album appeared, Johnson was mostly rumor, if known at all, except to a small group of collectors and those who had purchased the original 78s. Bob Dylan, who had never heard of Johnson, became mesmerized by the intensity of the recordings. The album appears in the album cover photo to Bob Dylan's Bringing It All Back Home amid various emblems of bohemian life. Songs from the album were repeatedly covered throughout the decade by many artists, notably Eric Clapton (Clapton would later record an entire disc of Johnson's songs, Me and Mr. Johnson).

In 2003, King of the Delta Blues Singers was ranked number 27 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

Robert JOHNSON (1911 –1938)

  • Crossroads Blues
  • Terraplane Blues
  • Come On In My Kitchen
  • Walking Blues
  • Last Fair Deal Gone Down
  • 32-20 Blues
  • Kindhearted Woman Blues
  • If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day
  • Preaching Blues
  • When You Got A Good Friend
  • Rambling On My Mind
  • Stones In My Passway
  • Traveling Riverside Blues
  • Milkcow's Calf Blues
  • Me And The Devil Blues
  • Hellhound On My Trail

Robert Johnson, guitar and vocals
Recorded November 23, 26 and 27, 1936; and June 19-20, 1937 by the American Record Corporation

Columbia ‎– CL 1654
Format: Vinyl, LP, Mono, Compilation, Repress
Recording details - https://www.discogs.com/Robert-Johns...elease/8403394

(Thanks to Enzo Baddo

Internet Archive URL - https://archive.org/details/02TerraplaneBlues_201705

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Project 366 - Single Works

To mark the fifth anniversary of ITYWLTMT, we are undertaking a long-term project that will introduce - and re-introduce - musical selections in the context of a larger thematic arc I am calling "A Journey of Musical Discovery". Read more here.

Today’s installment of Project 366 builds on a series of Friday Podcasts that consisted of what I called back then “one-work montages”. My policy on Friday podcasts has always been to target montage duration somewhere between 75 and 90 minutes in length, in line with the duration of a run-of-the-mill Compact Disc which, depending on its capacity, is anywhere between 74 and 80 minutes.

Back in the day of vinyl “Long Playing (LP)” records, where one side typically contained 20 minutes of music, a “large work” would be issued as a two-disc album. Works that would require that treatment were typically operas (which would be issued sometimes as three or even four record sets!), but also ambitious symphonies, oratorios, that sort of thing.

(There are always exceptions to that rule. In my vinyl collection, I own a single Everest disc of Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand (from the Vienna Festival, conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos)  which was made to fit on a single LP. I commend the record label for attempting the experiment, but the acoustic quality of the recording suffered greatly, as the grooves were so narrow that scarcely any dynamics could be rendered for the listener.)

As there is no specific overarching theme at play here, other than each Listener Guide contains a single work, let me just dive right into our list of proposed listening, with maybe a word or two about the feature work.

Listener Guide #97 - Verdi's Requiem

First performed at the San Marco church in Milan on 22 May 1874, this Messa da Requiem is a musical setting of the Roman Catholic funeral mass for four soloists, double choir and orchestra, composed in memory of Alessandro Manzoni, an Italian poet and novelist whom Verdi admired (the work was at one time called the Manzoni Requiem). It is rarely performed in liturgy, but rather in concert form of around 85–90 minutes in length. Musicologist David Rosen calls it 'probably the most frequently performed major choral work composed since Mozart's Requiem.' (ITYWLTMT Montage #151 - 11 Apr 2014)

Listener Guide #98 – Busoni’s Piano Concerto, op. 39

One of the largest works ever written in this genre, this concerto lasts around 70 minutes and is in five movements; in the final movement a male chorus sings words from the final scene of the verse drama Aladdin by Adam Oehlenschläger. The first performance of the concerto took place in the Beethoven-Saal, Berlin, on November 10, 1904 with Busoni himself as soloist, and Karl Muck conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and the Choir of the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche. (ITYWLTMT MOntage #247 - 12 May 2017)

Listener Guide #99 – Mahler’s Third Symphony

Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 is his longest piece and is the longest symphony in the standard repertoire; the first movement alone, with a normal duration of a little more than thirty minutes, sometimes forty, forms Part One of the symphony. Part Two consists of five more movements and has a duration of about sixty to seventy minutes. The symphony’s program suggests a title for each of the six movements: "Pan Awakes, Summer Marches In", "What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me", "What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me", "What Man Tells Me", "What the Angels Tell Me" and "What Love Tells Me" (ITYWLTMT Montage # 150 - 4 Apr 2014)

Listener Guide #100 – Liszt’s A Faust Symphony

As the title suggests, Eine Faust-Symphonie in drei Charakterbildern, or simply the "Faust Symphony", was inspired by Goethe's Faust. The symphony was premiered in Weimar on September 5, 1857, for the inauguration of the Goethe–Schiller Monument there. The first clue as to the work's structure is in Liszt's title: "A Faust Symphony in Three Character Sketches after Goethe: (1) Faust, (2) Gretchen, (3) Mephistopheles." Liszt does not attempt to tell the story of Goethe's drama. Rather, he creates musical portraits of the three main protagonists. By doing so, though this symphony is a multi-movement work and employs a chorus in its final moments, Liszt adopts the same aesthetic position as in his symphonic poems. The work is approximately seventy-five minutes in duration. (ITYWLTMT Montage #153 - 25 Apr 2014)

Listener Guide #101 – Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie

The Turangalîla-Symphonie was written between 1946 and 1948 on a commission by Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The premiere in Boston on 2 December 1949 was conducted by Leonard Bernstein, substituting for an ailing Koussevitzky. Yvonne Loriod, who later became Messiaen's second wife, was the piano soloist, and Ginette Martenot played the ondes Martenot (invented by her brother Maurice). The commission did not specify the duration, orchestral requirements or style of the piece, leaving the decisions to the composer. When asked about the meaning of the work's duration (80 minutes) in its ten movements and the reason for the use of the ondes Martenot, Messiaen simply replied, "It's a love song." (ITYWLTMT Montage #246 - 28 Apr, 2017 )

Listener Guide #102 – Haydn’s Creation

Haydn was inspired to write a large oratorio during his visits to England in 1791–1792 and 1794–1795, when he heard oratorios of George Frideric Handel performed by large forces. Die Schöpfung is considered by many to be Haydn’s masterpiece. The oratorio depicts and celebrates the creation of the world as described in the Book of Genesis and is structured in three parts. The first deals with the creation of light, of heaven and earth, of the sun and moon, of the land and water, and of plants. The second treats the creation of the animals, and of man and woman. The final part describes Adam and Eve during their happy time in the Garden of Eden, portraying an idealized love in harmony with the "new world". A typical performance lasts about one hour and 45 minutes. (Once or Twice a Fortnight - December 12, 2016 )

Friday, May 12, 2017

L'heure Espagnole (Ravel)

This is my post from this week's Once or Twice a Fortnight.

Many times on OTF, I’ve tried to program one-act operas. I don’t mind monumental works (like Wagner’s Tristan we discussed last time) but since I do most of my music listening on the bus, I really like something that I can listen to from beginning to end during my commute – rather than doing it over two or three.

Ravel’s vocal output is surprisingly diverse – from settings of old Greek songs to a pair of short, one-act operas. L'heure espagnole is a one of those, best described as a musical comedy to a French libretto by Franc-Nohain, based on his 'comédie-bouffe' of the same name first staged in 1904.

Ravel was closely involved in every aspect of the production as it was prepared for its premiere at the Opéra-Comique in Paris. First performed at the Opéra-Comique on 19 May 1911 in a double-bill with Massenet’s Thérèse, it stood for nine performances and was not heard again for 10 years (5 December 1921 at the Paris Opera) when it enjoyed more success. The opera returned to the Opéra-Comique in 1945 where it entered the company’s repertoire.

Translated literally, the title in English is "The Spanish Hour", but the word "heure" more importantly means "time" – "Spanish Time", with the connotation "How They Keep Time in Spain". Time keeping, and in particular clocks, are used extensively as plot devices throughout the 21 scenes of this delightful work. Concepción, the clock-maker’s wife plans to use his weekly service rounds to entertain gentlemen at home, and her rendezvous’ are either aided or hampered by clocks that are used by her suitors to hide and get moved between her bedroom and her husband’s workshop.

Today’s musical share is from a 1965 recording supervised by Lorin Maazel, featuring local singers with varying name recognition.

Happy Listening!

Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
L'Heure Espagnole, MR 52
Musical Comedy in one act for 5 voices and orchestra, French libretto by Franc-Nohain

Concepcion – Jane Berbié
Don Inigo Gomez – José van Dam
Gonzalve – Michel Sénéchal
Torquemada – Jean Giraudeau
Ramiro – Gabriel Bacquier
Orchestre National de la R.T.F
Lorin Maazel, conducting
Recording: Paris, O.R.T.F., 2/1965

Synopsis - http://www.oberlin.edu/news-info/01jan/ravel_opera_synopsis.html

Libretto - http://www.operalib.eu/oraspagnola/pdf.html

Busoni: Piano Concerto, op. 39

No. 247 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series of audio montages is this week's Friday Blog and Podcast. Mobile followers can listen to the montage on our Pod-O-Matic Channel, and desktop users can simply use the embedded player found on this page.

The second of our “one work montages” features a work that is quite unique, both in its format and its very sparse discography: the only piano concerto by the late 19th– early 20th century virtuoso pianist Ferruccio Busoni.

Busoni was the prototypical Renaissance man - composer, pianist, conductor, editor, writer, and teacher. A child prodigy, largely taught by his clarinetist father (his mother, a pianist, was also a professional musician), he began performing and composing at the age of seven. Busoni composed in his early years in a late romantic style, but after 1907 he developed a more individual style, often with elements of atonality. His piano compositions include original works and transcriptions of the works of others, notably Johann Sebastian Bach. In that sense, one can think of Busoni in the same vein as Liszt, Godowsky, and other piano virtuosi who composed “showpieces” for their own use.
His other compositions include chamber music, vocal and orchestral works, and also operas, one of which, Doktor Faust, was left unfinished at the time of his death. Busoni died in Berlin at the relatively young age of 58.

Busoni’s Piano Concerto in C major is one of the largest works ever written in this genre. The concerto lasts around 70 minutes and is in five movements; in the final movement a male chorus sings words from the final scene of the verse drama Aladdin by Adam Oehlenschläger, a Danish playwright who’s a contemporary of Goethe.

The first performance of the concerto took place in Berlin on November 10, 1904, at one of Busoni's own concerts of modern music. Busoni was the soloist, with Karl Muck conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and the Choir of the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche. The reviews were decidedly mixed, some being filled with outright hostility or derision. Apart from the immense demands required of the soloist and the large forces needed, there is a further difficulty that can affect performances of this work: the role of the soloist.

As Busoni himself wrote, piano concertos tended to be modelled after either Mozart or Beethoven. In Mozart's case, the concerto centres around the spotlit virtuoso composer-performer, who appears to spontaneously create the work before us, on-stage. The orchestra mostly provides a background accompaniment. But with Beethoven, it’s the reverse - the work is often conceived in symphonic terms; the piano takes the secondary role, reflecting on or responding to ideas that have already been introduced by the orchestra (the fourth piano concerto being the exception).

Busoni combined both these perspectives in the Piano Concerto: a huge work of symphonic proportions which presents exceptional challenges for the soloist, who is often required to incorporate a glittering cascade of notes into the overall orchestral sound. This self-abasement of the familiar 19th-century heroic soloist's role thus requires careful consideration of balance in performance.
It seems to have been Beethoven who first included a chorus in a concertante work with piano and orchestra (his Choral Fantasy, Op. 80). since then only a handful of works have been scored for similar forces, including Daniel Steibelt's Piano Concerto No. 8 and the Piano Concerto No. 6 by Henri Herz which also have a choral finale. Adam Oehlenschläger's verse drama Aladdin, or the Magic Lamp was first published in Danish in 1805. The play has a number of parallels with the works and ideas of Goethe, such as the Faust-figure of the wicked magician Noureddin who takes advantage of Aladdin's youth and inexperience to get hold of the wonderful lamp; Goethe was also much preoccupied with Plato's philosophy, including his theory of Forms and the Parable of the cave.
During his travels in Germany in 1805-6, Oehlenschläger spent several months in Weimar in the company of Goethe and his closest circle of friends. He used the opportunity of his daily visits to read out Aladdin to Goethe, freely translating from the Danish. At the time, Goethe was in the process of completing the final version of Faust, Part 1.

As I stated earlier, Busoni worked late in life on an opera based on Faust, but was equally taken with this early German version of Aladdin and planned to adapt it as a one-evening work. However, Busoni never completed his adaptation of Aladdin, although he did compose music for the final chorus in the magic cave; this made its way into the Piano Concerto.

Since its premiere in 1904, the concerto has seen relatively few performances, owing to the large orchestration, complex musical texture, the use of a male chorus, and the staggering demands put on the soloist. Consequently, its discography is sparse (refer to this Wikipedia entry), and as was the case last time with the Messiaen Turangalila symphoiny, we turn to a vintage stereo recording from the mid-1950’s featuring the late John Ogdon who, like Marc-André Hamelin today, had a reputation in exploring arcane (and technically challenging) piano repertoire by the likes of Alkan and Busoni.
The conductor in this performance, Daniell Revenaugh, studied piano with Ferruccio Busoni's pupil Egon Petri from 1951 until Petri's death in 1962. He later founded the Busoni Society, and has amassed a large and important collection of Busoni and Petri materials. This recording of the Busoni concerto won the Deutscher Schallplatten Preis, the Montreux Award, a Grammy nomination, and has remained in the EMI catalogue for decades.

I think you will love this music too!